Alberta's Parkland Natural Region
Updated December 15, 2006
Remnant patches of aspen and willow shrublands mixed with native grasslands, underlain by black soils and surrounded by productive agricultural lands and urban landscapes, is characteristic of the present-day Parkland Natural Region. Cool, moist Cordilleran climates along the foothills of the Front Ranges, and transitional boreal climates in the plains of central and northwestern Alberta produce three distinct divisions of this Natural Region.
The Parkland Natural Region includes the
Foothills Parkland, Central Parkland and Peace
River Parkland Natural Subregions. Of these,
the Central Parkland Natural Subregion is the
most extensive, occurring in a broad arc from
200-250 km wide in central Alberta, narrowing
to about 50 km where it joins the Foothills
Parkland Natural Subregion in west-central Alberta.
The Foothills Parkland Natural Subregion occupies a discontinuous and narrow band along the foothills, extending south to the Alberta–Montana border. The Peace River Parkland occurs in three isolated patches in northwestern Alberta. Elevations range from 300 m in the Peace River Parkland Natural Subregion to about 1600 m in the Foothills Parkland Natural Subregion.
Undulating till plains and hummocky uplands are characteristic of the Central and Peace River Parklands. Rougher foothills terrain and steep, slumping river valley slopes are attributes of the Foothills and Peace River Parkland Natural Subregions, respectively.
The Parkland Natural Region is the most densely populated Natural Region in Alberta, and has been extensively cultivated since the late 1800s. The Natural Region has been strongly influenced by agriculture, and soil types have been used to define its boundaries.
The following links provides basic information on the key characteristics at the subregion level.
- Foothills Parkland Natural Subregion
Rolling to hilly native grasslands on southerly slopes, aspen woodlands or willow shrublands in low-lying areas or on northerly slopes, and hay lands on undulating to rolling terrain define the Foothills Parkland Natural Subregion.
- Cooler summers and shorter growing seasons, but warmer winters and more precipitation than other parkland Natural Subregions.
- Black Chernozems and Dark Gray Chernozems are typical; drier sites support mountain rough fescue-bluebunch fescue grasslands, and aspen forests or willow shrublands occur on moister sites.
- Shorter growing seasons result in less cultivation and more native vegetation than in the other two parkland Natural Subregions.
The Foothills Parkland Natural Subregion occupies a discontinuous belt along the foothills, ranging from about 5 to 50 km wide. It consists of two distinct units. The southern unit extends from the Alberta-Montana border north to the town of Pecten. The northern unit extends from approximately Willow Creek to about 50 km north of Calgary. In both units, marked changes in elevation create correspondingly rapid climate changes, and the Natural Subregion is narrowest in these places. Adjacent Natural Subregions are the Central Parkland and Lower Foothills to the north, the Foothills Fescue to the east, and the Montane to the west.
This is the highest parkland Natural Subregion, and elevations range from 1025 m north of Calgary to about 1400 m in the Porcupine Hills. Rolling to hilly landscapes are typical. Grasslands similar to those in the Foothills Fescue Natural Subregion occur on dry sites, and aspen stands like those in the Montane Natural Subregion occur on moister, cooler northerly aspects and in seepage areas. In the northern unit of the Foothills Parkland Natural Subregion, moist willow groves dominated by beaked willow and with a significant tall herb component are a distinguishing feature.
Black Chernozems are the dominant soils under grasslands, reflecting relatively high organic matter incorporation. Dark Gray Chernozems occur under forest cover. Open water and wetlands are uncommon. Because of relatively short growing seasons and correspondingly less intensive cultivation, the Foothills Parkland Natural Subregion has the highest proportional area remaining in native vegetation of the three parkland Natural Subregions.
- Central Parkland Natural Subregion
The Central Parkland Natural Subregion occupies a broad, intensively cultivated and heavily populated fertile crescent in central Alberta. It lies between the cold, snowy northern forests and the warm, dry southern prairies, sharing the climatic and vegetation characteristics of both.
- Mostly cultivated with mosaic of aspen and prairie vegetation on remnant native parkland areas, usually associated with hummocky till or eolian materials.
- Temperature, precipitation and growing season characteristics are intermediate between the dry, warm grasslands to the south and the cooler, moister boreal forests to the west and north.
- Black Chernozems, some Dark Gray Chernozems, significant occurrences of Solonetzic soils.
The Central Parkland Natural Subregion includes over 50,000 km2, much of it under cultivation. It includes all or parts of Alberta's three largest cities, and arches north from Calgary through Edmonton and east to the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. It meets the Dry Mixedwood Natural Subregion to the west and north, and the Foothills Fescue, Foothills Parkland and Northern Fescue Natural Subregions to the south. Elevations range from 500 m near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border to 1250 m near Calgary.
Undulating till plains and hummocky uplands are the dominant landforms. Lacustrine and fluvial deposits are locally common in the northern and eastern parts of the Natural Subregion, and there are some significant eolian deposits. Almost all the area is cultivated, but a mosaic of aspen and prairie vegetation occupies remnant native parkland areas.
In the southern and eastern parts of the Natural Subregion, plains rough fescue prairie is the dominant vegetation, with clumps of aspen present but restricted to moist sites. In the northern and western parts, aspen forest is dominant and grasslands are restricted to drier areas. Black Chernozems usually occur under grasslands, and Dark Gray Chernozems and Luvisols usually occur under aspen forests.
- Peace River Parkland Natural Subregion
The Peace River Parkland Natural Subregion lies well north of the other Parkland Natural Subregions. It is defined by gently rolling plains and steep, southfacing grassy and forested slopes along the Peace River. It is the smallest Natural Subregion in Alberta.
- Almost all uplands are cultivated.
- Black soils indicate the extent of pre-settlement grasslands.
- Upland forests of aspen and white spruce; dry grasslands and aspen forests on valley slopes.
- Slightly drier and warmer than the surrounding Dry Mixedwood Natural Subregion.
- Significant admixture of Solonetzic soils and Solonetzic subgroups of Chernozems on the plains.
The Peace River Parkland Natural Subregion is the smallest Natural Subregion in Alberta, and accounts for only 0.5 percent of the province's total area. It is mapped as three small sub-areas in northwestern Alberta.
The northernmost sub-area runs parallel to the Peace River from the town of Peace River to Dunvegan. It includes the south-facing, steep Peace River valley slopes and glaciolacustrine plains on the north side of the river to a distance of about 20 km back from the river break. The second sub-area includes a small level to gently undulating glaciolacustrine plain centered on Spirit River. The third and most southerly sub-area is an undulating to rolling glaciolacustrine plain adjacent to Grande Prairie.
There are other known areas of Parkland, but they are generally too small to map at the provincial scale. The Dry Mixedwood Natural Subregion surrounds all sub-areas.
Elevations range from 300 m along the Peace River near Peace River townsite, to 800 m in the Grande Prairie area. Almost all the upland plains have been cultivated. The remaining upland forested areas are mainly aspen stands on Dark Gray Chernozems or Luvisols.
Porcupine grass-California oat grass-sedge prairies occur with Solonetzic soils and are very uncommon. On the south-facing valley slopes, needle grass-June grass communities occur on the driest locations; aspen forests and dry shrublands occur on moister areas.
Because most of the area is cultivated, the Peace River Parkland Natural Subregion is defined by soil criteria. The core conditions for this Natural Subregion are defined by the occurrence of Chernozemic and Solonetzic soils; soil maps were used to delineate the current boundaries.
The Peace River Parkland was recognized by the first explorers to the area, who noted the occurrence of extensive tracts of "native prairie" in an otherwise forested landscape. Agricultural development started in the early 1900s, and little the original native prairie remains today.
Recognition of this as a distinctive landscape relies heavily on the written observations of the early explorers, and other historical and current evidence. For example, Hudson's Bay records show a disjunct population of pronghorn occurred in the Peace River area, up until about the 1850s (Ferguson 2003). Still present are disjunct populations of plants and insects, otherwise associated with the Grassland Natural Region. Taken together, these suggest an ecosystem distinct from the surrounding boreal landscapes.
The new Natural Regions and Subregions of Alberta Report (5.2 MB) is now available.
View the Errata Report(23 KB) for the printed and digital versions of the above report, prior to May 15 2006.